The Coast Guard says it will conduct a formal investigation into the sinking of the tall ship HMS Bounty off the North Carolina coast Monday.
The ship, a 180-foot, 3-masted replica built for a 1962 Marlon Brando movie, had sailed from New London, Conn., on Oct. 25 with a crew of 16 en route to St. Petersburg, Fla.
It began taking on water as it tried to dodge Hurricane Sandy by heading east, far out into the Atlantic. The crew abandoned ship about 4 a.m. Monday about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras.
Fourteen crewmembers were rescued by Coast Guard helicopters flying out of an air station at Elizabeth City. Another, Claudene Christian, 42, who had joined the crew in May, was pulled from the water that afternoon and couldn’t be revived.
That left the captain, Robin Walbridge, 63, still missing. The Coast Guard called off the search for him Thursday.
The investigation will explore every aspect of the ship’s sinking, according to the Coast Guard, and will try to answer several questions, including the cause of the accident; whether it involved a failure of material or equipment; and whether any misconduct, negligence, inattention to duty, or willful violation of the law by any licensed or certified person contributed to the loss of life.
The ship’s website made it clear that the crew was aware of the hurricane when the Bounty left port. It isn’t specific about the reasoning behind the decision to sail, and surviving crewmembers have not spoken publicly about the trip.
There is a sharp debate on the ship’s Facebook page about the decision to sail. One post notes that the relatively slow speed of the Bounty made it vulnerable once the decision was made, reducing the ship’s options as the storm approached.
In a forum on the ship’s website, an official posting before it hit the storm indicated that the Bounty was moving at 8.6 knots – less than 10 miles per hour. Large ships capable of handling extreme wind and waves sometimes put to sea as major storms approach to avoid damage from smashing into docks and other ships, or going hard aground. The U.S. Navy sent more than two dozen ships, including an aircraft carrier, to sea from Hampton Roads as the hurricane approached. They were larger and much faster than the Bounty, though, and the goal was to dodge the brunt of the storm by steaming at high speeds eastward and out of its path.
Some posts on the Bounty’s Facebook page point out that the crew, at least, would have been safer in port, and that other ships remained in port during the storm without any problems. Others argue that it made sense to get away from port.
The investigating officer will be Cmdr. Kevin M. Carroll, chief of the Coast Guard 5th District Marine Inspections and Investigations Branch, based in Portsmouth, Va. He will be assisted by officers from Coast Guard Sector North Carolina in Wilmington.
Such investigations often take months, according to the Coast Guard. They aren’t aimed at placing blame for criminal or civil legal action, but rather are “for the purpose of taking appropriate measures for promoting safety of life and property.”